Second Sunday in Lent/ 16th March 2014
A recording of the sermon may be found here.
A recording of the sermon may be found here.
He arrived in the dark seeking light. He arrived at night afraid of the light, worried what others might think if seen in the light of day. He came searching for insight, for wisdom, for some answers, for truth. He’s heard rumors about what this man could do: signs and wonders, imbuing the presence of God.
He’s not new to the world of the spirit, to the religious life. He’s well educated, raised in the faith; he rose up through the ranks, sits as a religious leader among the people. He’s a powerful man, commanding respect, a man of influence, with authority, which makes his appearance—at night—all the more mysterious.
And Jesus knows why. Jesus knows his heart. Jesus knows his thoughts. Jesus knows the stirrings of his soul. Jesus knows he’s searching for something. He’s a religious professional, he knows the stories of his people, he grew up in community, went to Sabbath school. He was religious by nature and by practice. He worshipped Yahweh on the Sabbath, observed Torah, and made sure others did the same. But then he goes to Jesus with a seeker’s heart, a spirit of curiosity, and the hunger for something, undercover at night, so no one else would see.
Here’s the truth, Nicodemus. I’m going to level with you and cut to the chase. I know you’re looking for the kingdom of God. I know you’re searching for a world shaped by God’s justice and righteousness. I know you’re looking for something more, for a better a world, for a deeper connection to your soul. I know your faith and your religious practices are growing tired, I know they don’t speak to you anymore. Here’s the truth, Nicodemus: no one can see the kingdom of God without being re-educated, re-newed, re-born.
“Reborn” “Born-again.” “Born from above.” Whichever way you want to say it—and any of these would be correct, it’s the same in Greek—the point is one has to start again. You have to go back to school. You have to unlearn some things in order to learn new things, kingdom things, about God, yourself, and the world. This way of God does not come naturally. You don’t reach the kingdom through a developmental process or evolution. All the human wisdom and reason in the world can’t lead you there. All the religious wisdom of the world can’t lead you to that place—some religious ideas might even stand in the way.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus said. “I don’t understand.”
Being a literalist, he misses the point—as literalists often do, trying to be, well, literal, choking truth with the facts. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
To which Jesus says, a second time:
Here’s the truth, Nicodemus. Listen to me. You won’t find what you’re looking for if you don’t open your eyes to what you cannot see. You can’t enter into the kingdom, you won’t see the world as I see it, live in it the way I live in it, love it the way I love it, without becoming a child of the Spirit who wants to birth something new in you. If you want to live in the natural world, be a materialist, focus on only the things you see—that’s what I mean by ‘flesh’ natural—that’s what you’ll get. If you want to be a materialist, that’s fine, but that’s what you’ll get. If you want to see what you cannot see, if you want to live in the world of God’s Spirit, and be a part of something infinite and wondrous and beautiful and holy, then you need help, you need the Spirit. You will find what you’re searching for. But what are you searching for—or better, whom are you searching for?
Stunned. Nicodemus tries to collect himself, shocked by what he heard. Jesus knows what he’s doing. Jesus knows he’s dismantling the foundations of Nicodemus’ life and world. Jesus is intentionally throwing him into deep existential conflict—because that is how we learn and come to life. That’s what the Holy Spirit often does, throws us into conflict. Jesus doesn’t let up, but drives the point home; he drives Nicodemus deeper into the conflict, deeper into himself. “Do not be astonished, Nicodemus,” that I said, “You must be born from above. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is goes. That’s what it’s like for everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8)—open to something wild and wondrous and completely beyond your control.
“But how can these things be?” Nick objects. “You say you’re a teacher,” Jesus replies, “and yet you do not understanding these things?”
And so for a third time, Jesus “verily” says:
Here’s the God’s honest truth, Nicodemus. Listen to me. How can you ‘get it’ if you’re not being open to what I have to say? I have to explain how the wind works, how are you going understand how the Spirit works? I have come to bring you the way of the Spirit, the way of heaven, the way of God’s kingdom. I have been sent to show you, to teach you, to love you into the kingdom.
In order to see it, Jesus says to Nicodemus, you have to look at me, keep your eyes fixed on me. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have the life of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have the life of God. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:14-17).
That’s what Nicodemus needed to see. That’s also, I suspect, what Nicodemus was also searching for. “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). It’s been said that to begin the search for God means at some level we have already been found by God. The search itself says something about what we really desire in our hearts. The desire itself tells what we’re searching for and who’s searching for us. To search, to go off on that journey, even if it’s in the middle of the night, maybe especially then, is what matters. It’s the search that matters. As the novelist Walker Percy (1919-2009) once said, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” We want to be “onto something,” we want to go on that search for God. The soul longs for this.
In 1945, in a garbage dump in Egypt, scholars tripped over a copy of the Gospel of Thomas. Scholars have known about this Gospel for centuries, but no one had seen a complete copy of it until 1945. The Gospel dates from as early as 40 AD or as late as 140 AD. In the Gospel of Thomas we find this saying of Jesus: “If you are searching, you must not stop until you find. When you find, however, you will be troubled. [But] Your confusion will give way to wonder. In wonder you will reign over all things.”
See and you will find. Nicodemus found what he was searching for. The next time Nicodemus shows up in John’s Gospel, is on the Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion. “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night,” John tells us, “also came,”—now in full light for all to see—“bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths…” (John 19: 39, 40). By this time Nicodemus is a follower and a believer, open to the movement of the Spirit, a witness to the crucifixion, who saw the Son of Man lifted up; with eyes transfixed upon him, high and lifted up, Nicodemus saw the love of God descending through him and through him to a world, not to condemn, but to save.
And here’s the point: to see what’s happening through this man lifted up on a tree, on a cross, to “see” what’s really going on in him, to see what God is doing in him, to see what God is achieving on the cross, to be caught up in God’s movement in the life of Jesus is to be born from above and so born again, reborn, reeducated by the Spirit, transformed. To know this is to be born again and again and again. Shouldn’t this, then, be true of every follower of Christ?
The focus here, throughout John 3, is renewal, transformation, what it takes to experience being born again or from above. It’s about life, new life, God’s life. The text also identifies those things that hinder life, new life, God’s life. Here’s the rub: the tough truth we need to face is that there’s a part of us that resists renewal and transformation, which resists being born again or born from above. To stand there with Nicodemus, though, means we acknowledge that at some deep level, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for, it means that we have to admit that our lives are in need of change, that we are like Nicodemus searching for light in the darkness, we need help—all of us. To be born again means that the life we have from the first or original birth was and is insufficient; or to be born from above means that the natural life that we have is insufficient. Something else is required to help us see. A new form of birth is required. Something new has to be given. Something new has to be experienced. For all of us.
This is why it’s unfortunate and, to be honest, very frustrating that the term “born-again” has become so theologically and even politically loaded these days. A Presbyterian minister and friend, Roy Howard, recently expressed his frustration over the use, even misuse of the designation “born-again.” I share his frustration. To experience grace means that one has been born again and every time we encounter that grace we are born again. I have no problem claiming this label. Roy says, “It bothers me when mainline Christians (of which I am one) say ‘I’m not one of those born again types’ meaning not a fundamentalist.” I’m not one of those types, I’m not one of those types of Christians. I’m Christian but not like them. “I get that,” Roy says, “but if you are not a ‘born again type’ then just what ‘type’ are you and what experience of the living God has occurred in your life that compels you to be a disciple?” To which I reply, simply: “Amen!”
As we journey through Lent, as we search after Jesus, this is a good question for us: what type are you? What type are we as a church? Have we experienced that grace? Where have you had an experience of the living God? What compels you to be a disciple?
 See the work of James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition, (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), who identifies conflictual experiences as integral if not essential to the process of transformation and growth. See also Kenneth E. Kovacs, The RelationalTheology of James E. Loder: Encounterand Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).